Food history: chicken and waffles

Chicken and waffles! It’s soft and crunchy and sweet and savory and just ridiculous.

Is it a Southern food? Sort of.

Let’s dig into the history of chicken and waffles.

First of all, it’s pretty much always fried chicken specifically that’s served with the waffles. For some reason, this works – I just can’t imagine a hunk of grilled or baked chicken breast paired up with waffles.

According to the Food Timeline, chicken and waffles date back to Thomas Jefferson.

Side note: Thomas Jefferson is credited with popularizing many foods, including macaroni and cheese, baked Alaska, and Fuji apples.

Jefferson brought a waffle iron with him to America from France in the 1790s. The combination of chicken and waffles shortly followed – which I take to mean, as soon as there were waffles, there was chicken and waffles.

African Americans in the South “enthusiastically embraced” the marriage of chicken and waffles. At the time, chicken was considered a delicacy, and waffles were similarly unusual. Those who enjoyed the dish at the time probably felt like they were sampling something foreign and exciting.

In the late 1930s, chicken and waffles found a happy home in New York City – leading many to argue that it’s not really a Southern dish, after all. The Well’s Supper Club in Harlem became world famous for their chicken and waffles.

This this was the same era in Harlem when jazz music was taking off like a high speed rocket. In fact, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole reportedly visited the joint. Well’s offered super late night/super early morning meals to cater to musicians, hungry after playing at clubs all evening. 

The serving of chicken and waffles in the twilight hours speaks to the dish’s flexibility in being both a dinner and breakfast meal – acceptable for either. The time frame was actually from midnight up until 10AM, but 2AM seemed to be the peak chicken and waffle scarfing time.

Serving this meal after the regular dinner crowd had vacated conveniently helped the restaurant owners out, allowing them to get rid of leftover fried chicken from that evening’s dinner service. Well’s closed not terribly long ago, in 1999.

The fact that chicken and waffles sprung up as a popular dish to eat in the middle of the night, when most people are sleeping, makes it seem so very New York to me. 

Maybe chicken and waffles isn’t so Southern after all.

NPR’s The Salt interviewed John T. Edge, author of Fried Chicken: An American Story. Edge believes the history of chicken and waffles can be traced back to many spots, including but not limited to the South. He says, “It’s a Southern dish, but a Southern dish removed once or twice from the South.”

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles was the second restaurant to capitalize on the unique pairing. This establishment was opened in 1976 in Los Angeles by a Harlem native. Roscoe’s is still quite well known today, having made appearances in movies, and being a known spot for celebrities to visit.

Today, chain restaurants like Pop Eyes and IHOP offer chicken and waffles, although I can’t imagine they’re as good Roscoe’s, or those from soul food spots in the South.

I haven’t tried this food item yet, but I’d love to. If you know me at all you know I’m a huge fan of chicken in general. I prefer pancakes to waffles, but I can make do, and this seems like it would be an excellent brunch dish.

I’m not a huge syrup fan though. I like the idea of having the chicken on top the waffles, as compared to on the side, but I don’t know if I could allow the syrup to touch the chicken.

5 thoughts on “Food history: chicken and waffles

  1. If you ever go to tour the Ommegang Brewery, go to the restaurant and get the chicken and waffles, they are AMAZING.

  2. – Ha ha ha! That is funny. I grew up with a neighbor boy named Erin. My sisetr, also Erin, always thought that was really funny that he had her name until I explained the Irish thing (both our families are very Irish). Here’s to Erin’s everywhere!October 29, 2010 11:22 am

Comments are closed.